Employment essentials - which jobs would you keep?

Materials World magazine
1 May 2014

Do you remember having so-called balloon debates at school? Each person taking part had to adopt the role of an historical character, famous person or a profession and argue why they should be kept in a sinking balloon that needs to drop some ballast to stay up.

In the run-up to the Second World War, this was not just a hypothetical question. The UK Government drew up a Schedule of Reserved Occupations that were prevented from volunteering or being conscripted into the military. The list changed during the war years as a result of particular skills shortages and as women increasingly took on the work traditionally carried out by men, but at one time or another it included artists (to be involved in propaganda work), bank and insurance company employees, company directors, dock workers, doctors, farmers, journalists, merchant seamen, miners, police officers, priests, railway workers, scientists, teachers and those working in water, gas and electricity utilities.

It is interesting to consider which jobs would make a 21st Century reserved list – maybe not bankers or journalists, given the various crises and scandals that we have seen in the last decade. It would probably be web designers instead of artists for propaganda purposes, but other than that the list would likely be much the same, and for similar reasons – water, power, transport, food and medical care are all essential pre-requisites for society to function. But what would you place at the top of the list, because without it everything else would rapidly grind to a halt? Having recently watched a day-inthe-life of the control room of the National Grid, shown on the BBC popular science programme Bang Goes the Theory, I know what I would be advocating.

The National Grid owns and maintains the high-voltage electricity transmission network in England and Wales (Scotland has its own networks), balancing supply from more than 300 power stations with demand that varies on a minute-by-minute basis and which can double in less than 90 minutes. It maintains the thousands of kilometres of cable network that carry electricity from the generators to substations, where the voltage is lowered prior to distribution. All of this is controlled from a central and, for obvious security reasons, secret location, where every kW of generated capacity and demand is finely balanced at the flick of a switch and by the click of a mouse.

It is hard to imagine where we would be without that constant flow of electrons through the grid to our homes, offices, hospitals, factories and farms. While anyone battered by storms and floods this winter will have experienced an uncomfortable taste of life without electricity, most of us take it completely for granted.

Interestingly, the programme finished with one of those ‘if you would like to find out more about careers with the National Grid...’ details. I was so impressed, I almost contacted them myself.